From course developer under contract,
to professor, to president… 2003 is year number 25 in Dominique
Abrioux’s Athabasca University career. In this interview,
Dominique reflects on his experiences with, and contributions to,
Canada’s premier distance post-secondary institution.
In the words of the President …
what Dominique has to say about …
How to become president of Athabasca University.
What he likes about being president.
The worst thing about being president.
What’s kept him going the last 25 years.
The importance of family support.
His personal strengths.
His personal foibles.
What effective management means.
What brings him the most pride, professionally.
What he would do if he could change things.
What he most remembers about his tenure at AU.
What his future holds.
The perfect day.
The coolest person at AU.
K: You didn’t
begin at AU as president. How did you get here?
D: I was initially
hired under a Subject Matter Expert (SME) contract to develop a
French language course … With an SME contract in hand, I quickly
created AU’s initial second language course and, thanks to
Joe’s extremely strong advocacy for second language education,
was asked to develop two other courses, and to tutor that first
one … The success of this first course – and perhaps
the fact that then-president Dr. Sam Smith successfully completed
it – led to my appointment as Assistant Professor in 1979.
I continued to develop and deliver French courses until 1981, when
I was appointed Director of Liberal Studies, a title that subsequently
changed to Dean of Arts and Sciences in the mid-80s … Then
there was a two-year stint as acting Vice-President, Academic. In
1992, I was promoted to full Professor and continued my academic
career until February 1995 when, following a year’s sabbatical
in Japan, I was appointed President.
the expanded response here.
K: When you signed on, years
ago, did you ever think you would become president at AU?
D: I never imagined
a career path that would lead to management, never mind to senior
administration. I think if you’re doing a PhD in Comparative
Literature, you’re interested in academia and you are doing
it because you are interested in an academic life. Then factors
change as your career advances, and you change. Athabasca was a
great place to contribute in different ways at different points
in time, such as program and course development and delivery, research,
university community service. At some point, early on, I fell into
university administration, somewhat unprepared I might add, as I’ve
never to this day taken a course in management.
So, I was aspiring to a life in academia. I fulfilled that partially,
but in some ways I regret not having been able to fulfill it more.
Life is full of choices one makes and I don’t regret the way
my career unfolded. I would like to return to ‘real’
academic work before I retire, but I believe that my major impact
to academia, however, will have been to university administration
rather that research and teaching.
K: So, what
is the best thing about being president?
D: (Big pause) There
are many great things about being president, but I think that the
key one is the ability to provide strategic direction to our institution
and to take pride in our collective accomplishments. Given that
AU was in real trouble in the early and mid-90s, I had the opportunity
and the leeway, which I no longer have to the same extent today,
to put my stamp on the kind of university AU has become.
If I think back to ‘95, when I became president, there were
several strategic emphases that I believed had to be implemented
for Athabasca University to turn the corner. One was a real focus
on what I then termed ‘individualized distance education.’
Like many of my academic colleagues at AU, I believed this to be
Athabasca’s niche, a focus that was at that point in time
somewhat in question. There had in fact been no growth in our individualized
study model for some ten years and I believed that this had to change
if AU was to become viable. The government was seriously questioning
our economic viability, as in 1995 Athabasca University received
the highest government grant per FLE in the province, and our students
also paid the highest tuition fees. While the University had to
find more cost effective ways of operating, the primary solution
to this cost-efficiency problem lay in significantly increasing
our course enrolments in individualized study and hence the economies
Of course, our individualized distance education needed to epitomize
flexible open learning, and while this has always been a hallmark
of AU’s model, it was increasingly being called into question
Placing the emphasis on flexible learning remains very important
for us strategically, particularly in the e-learning age, for when
traditional ‘competitors’ enter the online distance
market, they focus on recreating the classroom through paced, cohort
study models rather than on flexible individualized learning models…
The second really important strategy that I advocated (and still
push for) was the development of a strong service culture. I thought
that was key to our future, that the university staff had to see
itself as part of a service industry, for the simple reason that
unlike regionally based campus institutions, we have absolutely
no protected student base. Anybody can do what we do - because they
don’t have to be on-site to do it. Our challenge then is to
do it better, but in the context of a strong service culture.
I thought then, and still believe today, that the traditional academic
culture was not conducive to individualized study, to flexible learning,
and to a real focus on service to students. Hence, increasingly
these had to represent AU’s strengths.
Fortunately, I was able to recruit two people who provided real
leadership in these areas. Judith Hughes, who assumed the responsibility
for Student Services, and who worked with me on the development
of our 1996 Strategic University Plan, and Alan Davis who bought
into the vision that this plan presented and who told me when he
accepted the VPA position in 1996 that a key factor had been the
clarity and directions that the SUP committed to.
what is the worst thing about being president?
D: I’d have
to admit that for me, it’s the fact that I am ultimately responsible
24/7 for the well-being of the University. It’s inescapable
given the role of CEO, and the pressures are certainly not of the
same magnitude all the time, but the fact remains that I live and
breathe AU 24/7. Closely linked to this is the lack of anonymity,
and the absence of peers with whom you can discuss some of the more
critical issues you’re facing. Ultimately, I’m responsible
to the board and while I’ve got very strong Vice-Presidents
I can’t share everything with them. Many university presidents
use one another for this, but being president of AU is very different
than being president at any other Canadian university…
did you decide to continue at Athabasca University the last 25 years.
you believed in Athabasca’s mission and mandate, it was really
the only Canadian institution in which you could work effectively,
where you weren’t working against the grain, during the period
of 1975-2000. It never crossed my mind to seek another position.
Add to this my belief that AU provided, through the 30 years of
its existence, for most employees, whether academics, support staff,
professionals or administrators, very different opportunities over
different phases, either of the individual’s life cycle or
the institutional life cycle.
Why leave if you really enjoy what you’re doing, and if you
think you can make a difference, and if it’s the only place
where you think you’re going to have that level of job satisfaction?
did you manage to endure?
D: I don’t
think of myself as being in endurance or survival mode. For me,
those are pretty negative concepts … it almost sounds like
all the circumstances are unfavourable, or many of them are unfavourable.
I don’t see the presidency that way! I love what I’m
doing. Sometimes I wish I weren’t doing it, and that’s
true of being in any position, but I love what I’m doing and
I think there’s great satisfaction in just the progress that
Athabasca University has made.
In any position, having a strong family support system is very
important. If I didn’t have the support – not just the
support – if I didn’t have the happiness I have in my
home environment, I wouldn’t do this job because I couldn’t
do it well. That’s not so much about endurance, but more about
addressing the requirements for me to succeed.
The workload and challenges are so heavy, and some of the issues
so overbearing, that if I had to have the challenge of making a
family situation work on top of it, I couldn’t be happy as
president. Fortunately, I have the best personal support system
imaginable in Lou, my wife of 32 years, and still the person with
whom I love to spend my time… We have two wonderful, grownup
– thank goodness! – kids, and two grandchildren. I have
more than enough happiness unrelated to my work…
What do you see as being your own personal strengths?
D: I believe I’m
committed. I’m not easily swayed from achieving a goal that
I consider to be important. I’m also hardworking.
Perhaps my greatest strength, though, is that I believe I have
a fairly accurate assessment of my own limitations. I think it’s
really important to know what you’re good at and what you’re
not good at. If you know your limitations, you can compensate for
them in different ways.
are your foibles?
D: I have a very
poor memory and have to try and compensate for that in various ways…I
also have to work harder and longer than many of my peers in order
to make similar accomplishments. In the position I occupy right
now, one of the areas that I have to work harder than others at,
is networking, public speaking as well. First of all, I don’t
particularly like either of them and yet I recognize they’re
important to what I do. I have to somewhat force myself to network,
for example. The location of Athabasca doesn’t help in that
regard, because we don’t have the constituency you would have
if you were president of a university in Edmonton where there would
be big expectations and opportunities from the community. Some are
far better than others at networking, although one certainly learns
through experience, through being placed in that environment. This
is less evident at AU, however, both because of the kind of organization
Athabasca is and our location. Yet on the occasions where one is
expected to have a public presence, the expectations are the same
as they would be of any university president… I find I have
to work very hard at that.
I am also rather critical and speak my mind too freely, sometimes,
particularly when my expectations of others are not met. Wearing
one’s feelings on one’s sleeves, as I tend to do, can
also be counterproductive sometimes…
What is your philosophy for creating an effective management style?
D: I firmly believe
in a value-driven leadership model. Senior staff has to believe
in and exhibit the values that are key to the organizational culture
and, hence, to its successes.
For example, if you take the importance that I believe excellent
service plays in AU’s success, a value driven leadership model
means that management at Athabasca University must consider it important
to demonstrate exemplary service to one other, to staff in general,
and to our students. This starts with me, and while some staff no
doubt believe that I place too much emphasis on the implementation
of our published service standards, such as those that apply to
voicemail and e-mail, I believe that I must walk the talk, and so
can expect others to do so as well.
More generally, successful management must build on the organizational
values and, in our case, starts with the senior management team
demonstrating through their daily actions that they firmly believe
in the core values outlined in our 2002 Strategic University Plan.
K: How do you translate that
philosophy into your everyday work life?
D: It’s not
very difficult … To return to the e-mail standards, for example,
when people send me an e-mail, they have the right to expect me
to respond. They don’t want someone else to read my e-mail.
They expect me to respond and they expect a timely response, just
as I would expect of them and just as our students would expect,
and rightfully so, of tutors, academics and administrative staff.
That’s a somewhat banal example given a president’s
role, but I think it’s nevertheless very important. If I value
teaching, as I do, I need to demonstrate that regardless of my primary
role in the organization. During almost all my career at Athabasca
as an administrator, I’ve also taught. During my term as president,
I’ve tutored most years, not as much as the average faculty
member but still a significant amount.
The Ombuds office initiative that I launched several years ago is
also a relevant example. I have it reporting out of my office, not
only because in that way it’s at arm’s length from almost
all departments, but also because I believe it’s important
to send the message to all staff and students that the president
is also here to serve students. So, if they’re not getting
satisfaction from elsewhere in the organization, students know that
the president is actively concerned in addressing their issues –
not always to their satisfaction, I might add! I receive many e-mails
from students and, through the Ombuds office with whom I work very
closely, we try to address them. Of course, due process has to be
followed and with the student’s permission, their concern
is forwarded for possible resolution to the appropriate staff member
or department, but sometimes students need an advocate and they
have to know that their last internal advocate is me.
Accessibility and openness represent other key organizational values
at AU, and these apply equally to the management culture as to our
educational programs and regulations. As president, being accessible
and open is hard work, but it does have paybacks.
Some of the pressures on the job have changed significantly because
of the electronic environment. It used to be that when you were
working away from the University, which is an important part of
the president’s role and certainly two to three days a week
of my job, there were no expectations that you would be available
for internal issues unless they were critical. However, when I am
away from AU today, I still have to spend three to four hours on
e-mail, or on cell phone calls, addressing the day-to-day issues
that constantly surface. This is partly my style and I do this because
I think it’s important and because the new technologies create
this expectation. In fact, on any given day almost everybody - except
Ferne! - has no idea where I am. I could be in Athabasca, Edmonton,
Calgary, or anywhere in the world, and my role in the administration
of AU is unaffected. Previously, this wouldn’t have been the
case. The internal job would have been handled by someone else,
or would have waited, and while my modus operandi created more work
for me when I am away from the university, the advantage is that
I am practically always caught up. When I return to Athabasca, I
don’t have to come in and close the door for a day and do
all the internal correspondence. So it’s give and take. But
if you think abut the kind of service we should be striving to give
to our students, 24/7, whether it’s academic or administrative
24/7, one of the ways in which I show that this is important is
by seeking to do the same myself, with staff and students.
back on your tenure here, what brings you the most pride?
D: On a personal
level, I think I’m most proud of the honourary degree I’ll
be receiving from the British Open University this September, because
in the field of open and distance learning institutions, I don’t
think there can be any higher recognition. While I am not quite
finished yet with being AU’s president – my second term
ends in 2005 – I consider this recognition as the one that
crowns my career to date. It came as a complete surprise, as I had
never thought that I might be considered for such an award.
On an institutional level, I am very proud of the tremendous turn-around
that AU has achieved since the mid-1990s. We have gone from an institution
on the verge of being closed down, to becoming recognized as Canada’s
Open University. I believe that provincially, federally, and internationally,
AU is now considered as a world-class university and a leader in
its field. Clearly, this is the collective accomplishment of the
AU community, but one in which I take particular pride…
K: Would you have done anything
D: There are lots
of small things I would have done differently. Insofar as significant
changes are concerned, though, I don’t believe so. I think
with the big decisions, you make them and then you make the most
of them. It’s not part of my philosophy to critically examine
major decisions I have made and to consider what it would have been
like had I made different one. One cannot undo the past and certainly
one can’t know whether taking a different road would have
resulted in an improvement or not.
I have a very fulfilling life and I have been very fortunate professionally
No, I wouldn’t want to change anything of significance, but
I have lots of little mistakes, as many people have.
will you most remember … or what do you most remember from
your tenure at AU? We’re not talking past tense, yet, right?
D: Yeah, that’s
right. I remember, vividly, the day that relocation to Athabasca
was announced, where I was and what I was doing. I was at the Calgary
regional office and a staff member there informed me that the university
was being relocated and, hence, my job. It was a complete shock
to me! I don’t believe at that time that I even knew there
was a Town of Athabasca 120 kilometers north of Edmonton! Nor do
I think I was aware that relocation was in the cards…
Like many faculty members at the time, my reaction was to say that
I would not relocate! But I very much liked AU and wanted to stay
on staff – not that there were many other opportunities in
academia for a PhD in Comparative Literature! – so I tried
commuting but found the pressures too great. I was, by then, in
administration and had to be in Athabasca three or four days a week,
and our kids were then in Grades 7 and 4. So, we did in fact relocate
to Athabasca. and both our children completed high school here,
at which point we returned to Edmonton.
Interestingly, even though relocating AU to Athabasca was entirely
political and resulted in the resignation of the president and board
chair, and in spite of the fact that it placed considerable pressure
on the University at a time when it should have been directing its
energy elsewhere, location was undoubtedly one of our saving graces
in the early 1990s.
Had we still been in Edmonton at that time, would we exist today?
I’d be surprised…
One of the problems with relocation, though, was that it was announced
four years before it happened. This extended period between the
government’s announcement and relocation itself provided time
for people to rally their opposition, to say it was not going to
happen, because it was fairly distant. All it did was to encourage
people to fight it. There was time for some people to find other
jobs, although this was practically impossible for the academics
because the academic market was just very depressed in the early
80s. These intervening years were very bad for AU’s immediate
does the future hold for you? Here’s yet another opportunity
to spill the beans.
D: (chuckle) Well,
I have some work left before completing my term in 2005. My focus
during this period will be twofold: the reorganization of the academic
division and the subsequent recruitment of a VPA to replace Alan
Davis, and the completion of our candidacy period for U.S. Middle
States accreditation. Thereafter, and once the next president has
taken office, I’ll take some leave. I don’t have any
plans to leave AU, and I can’t see myself working at this
level and intensity elsewhere, or for much longer. AU has been very
good to me and I hope to end my career here doing academic work
and contributing in any way deemed meaningful.
On a lighter note, what is a perfect day for you?
D: Academic Council
in the morning, Governing Council in the afternoon, Executive Group
in the evening!
K: Ha ha. Yeah, right.
D: On week-ends,
when not on the road, I get up at about 6 o’clock, read le
Monde, a French weekly newspaper which keeps me up to date
on French and European news and culture. Though it is a very thin
paper, it’s quite heavy reading because of the content and
it often takes me the week to get through it.
If one of the tennis grand slams is on, I’ll watch that.
Usually with the time difference that works. I usually make the
breakfast at home. If we’re in Edmonton, Lou and I will go
for a two-hour walk, stop off on Whyte Avenue and have a coffee.
I’ll generally work in the afternoon. In the evening we’ll
go out for supper or eat at home. If it’s just the two of
us, generally, we’ll cook together. If we’re entertaining,
Lou will do the cooking. She does most of the exotic cooking. I
do my fair share of the daily cooking. Then it’s about 8 o’clock,
and the question is how do you keep Dominique awake, because if
he sits down he’ll fall asleep.
I exercise a fair bit, perhaps five times a week. I swim. I walk
a lot. I think it’s important to keep as fit as possible.
It also allows me to indulge in two of my other big pleasures: food
I read. When I read, for pleasure reading, I will read only in
French, generally suspense, thriller novels that maintain my interest.
It allows me to at least keep some contact with the French language.
My kids are gone, and I spoke French to my kids. I no longer teach
or have colleagues with whom I speak French to on a daily basis,
so I try to maintain my French that way.
Every three weeks or so, we spend an afternoon or evening with
our married daughter, Nicola, and her family who live in Red Deer.
That’s fun and very relaxing! We have a fair bit in common
and spend time both with the grandchildren and with just the adults.
On much rarer occasions, we see our son Mario who’s a lawyer
I also travel, but not so much for leisure. I’ve done almost
all the leisure travel I want to do. One hotel is the same as another…
Last question. Who do you think is the coolest person at AU?
D: (dead silence)
I don’t think I want to touch that one.
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